REVIEW: ‘VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action’ is One of the Best Visual Novels (Switch)

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Valhalla is traditionally known as the great hall in Norse mythology where heroes slain in battle are received into paradise. Most texts reveal the common observation that the path to heaven is a path filled with pain, suffering, and hardship. Video games have depicted this, typically with action, violence, and entrenched combat. For VA-11 HALL-A, by Ysbyrd Games and Sukeban games, there is a more human tale to tell on the path to paradise. It is a tale of pain but enlightenment in the backdrop of an immersive and wildly imaginative futuristic city.

VA-11 HALL-A is a cyberpunk bartending action game, commonly described as a “booze ’em up” for ist focus on bartending as its chief gaming mechanic. Over the course of several hours, players will embark on a truly sublime and splendiferous story-telling experience with a tremendous visual-style and one of the best soundtracks in video games.

The game takes place in a not too distant future in Glitch City, a city brimming and teeming with the glamour and wonder of neon color lights. But at its core, a city is slowly decaying.  A corrupt government, a mismanaged police force, information manipulation, and nano-machine virus all contribute to the decay. People and citizens barely manage to get by, some giving up altogether. Deep within the city, beyond the deceptive lights and deep within the dark alleys likes a sanctuary in the unlikeliest of places.

The BTC certified bar, VA-11 HALL-A, is a diamond in the rough and a place that draws in the weary but determined, searching for an answer for their predicament. A small but tight group work together through many of the city’s constant challenges but chief among this team is the bartender, Jill. Jill is a young woman in her late 20’s, working hard at the bar with her friends.

As the bar is potentially scheduled to shut down, Jill makes her rounds working her hardest and interacting with various customers. In the decaying city, some people are looking for an escape while others are looking for an answer at the bottom of the glass. For Jill, it’s time to make drinks and change lives, and perhaps, even make a change in her own life.

VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel, where the player will mix drinks and interact with various customers on a daily basis, learning about each other and maybe gaining a new perspective of life in the conversation. As the bartender, your goal is to make drinks for the patrons at their request. Using the alcohol database, players can make a variety of drinks. A variety of customers will enter the bar and talk about anything and everything, with some being a good-intentioned patron and others being less-than-friendly.

However, with each customer, the player has the opportunity to change the conversation, based upon the drink they give them. Players have control over what type of drink is given, including how “big” to make it. Doubling the ingredients makes a drink big, meaning more alcohol and the possibility of a stronger conversation. Some drinks even have the option of putting more alcohol in a drink, known in the game as katomorine.

The more katomorine a drink has, the stronger it is. Some character can get tipsy and may begin slipping truths, unaware of their state, making for oftentimes humorous encounters. At the end of each workday, the player will return to Jill’s room, where they may decorate it and customize it as they deem fit. Players are on a budget and must be aware of their earnings from the bar.

Part of the challenge is Jill’s focus on her job. Players may buy specific items for her to focus on, but if she loses focus, like missing a day or not buying a certain item, it will increase the difficulty when making drinks. Jill will be too distracted on what she needs to do and the player will need to be extra attentive to the task at hand.

Serving the right drinks will make customers happy,  but serving big drinks may make them even happier. Serving them the wrong drink may make them irritated and give you less tip. Serving drinks with lots of alcohol can make things more humorous and reveal more about a character in various ways. The key to success in VA-11 HALL-A, and getting the good ending, is to balance out your bills and deliver the best service possible.

At the end of each day at work, players will be in their apartment, using their earning to customize the apartment with various items. Some items will prevent Jill from getting distracted. Not purchasing an item, or missing a pay period on a bill, will make Jill distracted, which can have he lose track of the drink she is serving. Additionally, one particular bill missed can affect the outcome of the game. After playing their first run through, which is estimated to be between 10-15 hours, players can go for New Game Plus and experiencing the secret endings the game has.

It’s impossible to talk about VA-11 HALL-A without mentioning the games has one of the sharpest audio and visual sensations in video games today. VA-11 HALL-A gives the appearance of an early 1990s video game with a flair that is directly connected to the pixelated sprites and hues of games of the time. The team directly drew inspiration from the PC-98 computer system, and the games released for that particular platform. Using a sharp array of beige, purple, blue, and other similar palettes, VA-11 HALL-A is able to give a striking impression even as the player sees the very familiar scene of the bar throughout their time with the game.

The character illustrations are all stunning and distinct, giving emotional depth and style to each character. Jill will encounter a variety of people, from hackers, to journalists, to cyborg mercenaries, to even talking shibas, and self-aware humanoids, known as Lilim. Visually, VA-11 HALL-A strikes quite the impression, but it smoothly fuses with the retro-inspired soundtrack by composer Garoad.

The soundtrack synthesizes into sci-fi anime musical perfection, an arrangement of sounds that run from smooth, to chilled, to exciting, all the way to fearful, and even emotional comforting. The soundtrack is reminiscent of sci-fi anime shows and movies, such as  Ghost In The Shell. The use of digital percussions and sounds such as pianos, guitars, and synthesizers, all echo through experience, underscoring the feeling and sensations the characters are feeling. Each character goes through a challenge that wildly ranges depending on the person. The music provides a form of gateway to focus on the tales being told and for the player to stay engaged with the stories.

VA-11 HALL-A

The heart of VA11-HALLA is its story and the characters in it. Jill is a young woman that is in some ways representative of the player. She has her own struggles, issues, and views in her life. Some of these mysteries will be unveiled over time, but it never grows old or stale as the game continues. The customers Jill interacts with are all incredibly fascinating, each striking a distinctive substance for the player as they go about their day.

Alma is a curvy woman who is fascinated by hacking but struggles to cope with the harsh realities of her family. Gillian is Jill’s co-worker, who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed at times, but he gets the work done. Dana is the firm, but still gentle manager of VA11-HALLA, with a mysterious bionic arm and even more mysterious past. Sei is a member of the WHite KNights, a federal enforcement force attempting to keep the peace. Dorothy is a sex-worker with plenty of clients, even though she is a Lilim. This is only an inkling of the total characters present in the game and the type of views and perspectives you will encounter.

The writing in VA-11 HALL-A is commendable. The game engages the player in a variety of deep discussions that encourage the player to think and read.  The topics of sex, sexual identity, gender, journalism, peer pressure, family expectations,  law and order, relationships, friendship, loss, heartbreak, and so much more. The game focuses squarely on the world around the player and the characters within it. This is further understood as Sukeban Games is based in Venezuela, and they have only fleetingly and discreetly given account into the unrest happening there. Playing VA-11 HALL-A, in some ways, feels like an interpretation of their world and dreams through this wildly fascinating cyberpunk universe they have created.

Players interact with characters who are in some degree of pain or strife, but Jill, despite her own issues, manages to find a means to better cope with certain issues. Jill is no sage or miracle worker and she even says so in the game, but the chemistry of the discussion and sharing these tales creates a system in which a person can better decipher their predicament or explore their world. VA-11 HALL-A will have emotional hardpoints but it is not a game that reinforces the harshness of reality.

There are plenty of moments of levity, especially from Dorothy and her many tales of intimacy with various clients, especially considering she is an android. Furthermore, the android Lilim, talking shibas, and cyborgs are all treated with human decency and never seen with any kind of prejudice, creating a distinctly fascinating storytelling experience.

When everything comes together, VA-11 HALL-A becomes a purely human tale in a wildly fascinating universe. Each line of text is sure to keep players engaged in the next story. The characters all come to life through their animations and dialogue. VA-11 HALL-A isn’t a game where the characters find answers, but a game where the player will discover answers about themselves.

VA-11 HALL-A is one of the best visual novels available and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with the genre. It’s delightfully polished retro-inspired visuals are accompanied by a truly original soundtrack and the stories of Jill and the various characters are immeasurably strong. Play this game, make drinks, and save lives.

VA-11 HALL-A is available now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS, Macintosh operating systems.

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
  • 10/10
    Rating - 10/10
10/10

TL; DR

VA-11 HALL-A is one of the best visual novels available and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with the genre. It’s delightfully polished retro-inspired visuals are accompanied by a truly original soundtrack and the stories of Jill and the various characters are immeasurably strong.